The first the world saw and heard of the Manchester group Herman’s Hermits was Peter Noone singing ‘I’m into Something Good’ through a shy, toothy grin. The band itself, now a stalwart of the RSL club circuit, is little more than a footnote to 1960s British pop, a novelty act among more serious bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Kinks. But in September 1964, ‘I’m into Something Good’ dislodged the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ from the top of the UK singles charts, and Herman’s Hermits were big. In Britain, at least, it was their first and last number one.
Yet there was nothing British about the song. Composer Carole King and her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin had begun writing together in college. When King, still only 17, became pregnant, they abandoned college in favour of full-time writing, and hits followed swiftly. There was ‘Will You still Love Me Tomorrow’ for the Shirelles; ‘Chains’ for the Cookies (and later the Beatles); ‘The Loco-Motion’ for Little Eva; ‘Go Away Little Girl’ for Steve Lawrence; and ‘It Might as Well Rain until September’, which was sung by King herself. By the time they wrote ‘I’m into Something Good’, they were two of the most successful songwriters in America.
Carole King always said the song, with its high, floaty backing vocals, was an early homage to the Beach Boys (more than 40 years later, Brian Wilson would record his own version of the song), but the main part of ‘I’m into Something Good’ has the structure of a 12-bar blues, complete with a so-called ‘blues turnaround’. In place of the standard cadential chord progression of IV–V–I, the blues commonly reverses chords IV and V, producing a softer, less final cadence. ‘I’m into Something Good’ makes a feature of this, because the climax of the tune—‘Some–thing tells me’—not only occurs on chord V but marches steadily up the arpeggio itself—G–B–D–G—landing on the song’s highest note, before happily resolving with the song’s title on chords IV and I.
If you know only the Herman’s Hermits hit, you could be forgiven for missing the blues connection, but the grinning, clapping Peter Noone was not the first to record ‘I’m into Something Good’.
In late 1963 the Cookies were on tour with their latest Goffin–King hit, ‘Chains’, when singer Earl-Jean McRae became pregnant. The father turned out to be Gerry Goffin. Rather than boot her philandering husband out of the marital home, King agreed that they should take care of the singer financially. They also gave her ‘I’m into Something Good’, which she recorded under the name Earl-Jean, with King doing the arrangement and playing piano. The record was a minor hit in the United States, but soon eclipsed by Herman’s Hermits’ cover version.
The two recordings, made a few months apart, have much in common, Mickie Most’s production for Herman’s Hermits making broad use of Carole King’s arrangement. But the differences in detail, though minor, give each version quite a distinctive feel, the breezy insouciance of Herman’s Hermits’ hit at odds with the earthier tones of Earl-Jean’s original.
The Cookies that Earl-Jean had joined in 1961 were the second group with that name. The original R&B group had been transformed into Ray Charles’ backing singers, the Raelettes, but the new Cookies retained their sound. Earl-Jean’s recording of ‘I’m into Something Good’, then, makes the blues template a little easier to hear, especially because she is inclined to embellish the vocal line with melodic inflections redolent of soul—for instance, the way she scoops up to the note on ‘boy’.
There are subtle differences in the lyric as well. It’s not only that Noone’s ‘new girl in the neighbourhood’ was originally a ‘new boy’, it’s also a matter of attitude. Noone sings that ‘she danced close to me’, though ‘only … for a minute or two’, after which she ‘stuck close’ to him ‘the whole night through’. But though Earl-Jean and her boy ‘only talked for a minute or two’, it felt like she’d known him ‘her whole life through’. He then proceeded to ‘dance every slow dance with me as I hoped he would’. The clean-cut Noone, a grinning boy with a hint of a lisp, is pleased to have met a new girl, but the relationship, you feel, is unlikely to progress much beyond hand-holding, and the reference to a ‘one-night stand’ always did seem odd. Earl-Jean was singing about physical desire, and she didn’t have to ask this boy if he’d still love her tomorrow; she ‘knew it wouldn’t be just a one-night stand’.
These differing lyric emphases are borne out in the sound of the music. The tempo of the Earl-Jean recording is slower than the more familiar version, roughly 120 beats to the minute, as opposed to 132. It is not a big difference, but the heavier use of tom-toms and King’s more pronounced rolling piano seem to situate the song in an R&B world. In contrast, Herman’s Hermits’ cleaner vocals and quicker tempo are underpinned by the non-stop hand claps and a skipping triplet rhythm tapped out on a cymbal and later a tambourine. The instrumental break on Earl-Jean’s record features a burning saxophone, brimming with passion, albeit somewhat distantly recorded, where Herman’s Hermits have an anodyne electric guitar lick.
Herman’s Hermits recorded the song in C, Earl-Jean in the higher key of E flat; yet Earl-Jean’s husky and more intimate voice seems lower than Noone’s. The song ends with a descent to its lowest note on the tag line ‘Something good, oh yeah, something good’. The boyish Noone can barely produce a sound on his bottom note—and it’s only the C below middle C, a pitch on the range of even a high tenor voice. Earl-Jean’s bottom note is E flat, which is very low indeed for a female voice, yet when the moment comes she leans in close to the microphone to croon a rounded, almost triumphant ‘something good’. •
Andrew Ford is a composer, writer and presenter of The Music Show on Radio National.
Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist. She works as editor at the Australian Music Centre in Sydney.